In the wake of successful campaigns abroad as part of the NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo, the Dutch military is now having to battle with budget cuts and lower expectations. And the latest cuts, announced on Thursday by the Defence Minister, are even more drastic than expected.

With spending to be cut by 1 billion euros and the loss of 10,000 jobs, there is concern that the military’s fighting capability will be affected. Dick Berlijn is a retired four-star general and former Dutch defence chief. He said: “I fear that this won’t happen without a further reduction of the operational apparatus, and hence of the
fighting force capability.”

Defence Minister Hans Hillen denies fighting capacity will suffer, while at the same time he says the military’s ambitions will have to be adjusted and “fundamental choices” will need to be made. He says the military has exhausted itself over the past few years, partly because its goals exceeded its means. Mr Hillen wants to bring the ambitions, activities and means of the military into balance.

Joint Strike Fighter
While Mr Hillen admits a change is needed in how the military spends its money, he is not ready to scrap high-cost projects outright, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or an expensive new administrative system. As the minister explained,

“If we, with these kinds of investments, are going to say that we freeze things because they cost too much money, then soon we’ll be sending our soldiers into battle with the wrong material, or insufficient material. That’s not good for them, it leaves them vulnerable, and we can’t do that to the soldier of tomorrow.”

But the budget cuts mean there will be fewer soldiers to worry about in the future. Ten thousand employees will have to go (of the current 69,000), and soldiers will get less training time, whether it’s carrying out exercises, or hours spent flying or sailing.

Expeditionary force
The latest cuts are part of a longer reform of the Dutch army, navy and air force. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the Dutch transformed its military into a smaller, expeditionary force. Cuts have continued over the years, while at the same time the Dutch military has a reputation as one of the most capable in Europe.

But now Defence Minister Hillen has a fight on his hands. The unions representing military personnel reacted by breaking off contract negotiations. Instead, the unions will be meeting to plan protests, such as work stoppages, work-to-rule, or work slowdowns. The unions do not plan out-and-out strikes.

The opposition Labour Party has called for a parliamentary inquiry into defence spending in recent years. Labour MP Angeline Eijsink accuses the ministry of mismanagement, saying,

“As [Labour’s] defence specialist I’ve said many times that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians, that test models weren’t needed, that the can-do mentality in the defence forces has become can’t-do.”

She is not likely to succeed in getting a parliamentary inquiry. But no inquiry is needed to see that the military is at a crossroads. Dutch troops may be looking at the home front rather than abroad, but they’re in a fighting mood.

The cuts to the defence budget are part of a larger effort by the new cabinet to balance the Dutch books. Public spending will be cut by a total of 3.6 billion euros next year, in an attempt to reverse the growth of government debt which is projected to rise to a record 66 percent of GDP in 2011.